Untangling dark family secrets
The compelling, complex heroine of Chime, Franny Billingsley’s eagerly awaited new romantic fantasy for teens, is haunted by remorse.
“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged,” declares Briony Larkin in the book’s opening line. And she means it. She’s not only guilty—she’s wicked.
Briony is convinced that this is the truth of who and what she is. The real truths—of her emotions and the events of the past—are secrets, buried so deeply that there is only one thing that drives her to tell her story: She is on trial as a witch and about to be hanged.
Well, there might be something else. Possibly, just possibly, she might be in love.
Seventeen-year-old Briony Larkin and her developmentally disabled twin sister Rose, whom Briony has always felt responsible for, are the daughters of a clergyman. They are also the stepdaughters of a stepmother who has recently killed herself, three years after telling our heroine that she—Briony—is a witch: “If I wasn’t a witch, she asked, how else was it that I had the second sight?”
Billingsley didn’t start out writing about witches, though.
“At first I thought it would be a changeling story set on the moors, but after five years I gave that up,” Billingsley says in an interview.
The current setting is a swamp, inspired loosely by the Fenlands of England. The time is 1910, when traditional folk beliefs were coming into conflict with the ever-advancing industrial revolution.
“The swamp becomes a character in the story,” notes Billingsley. Indeed, the swamp is a dangerous force for Briony and the village. It is also under siege: An engineer named Mr. Clayborne has arrived from London to drain the swamp, to improve life in the Swampsea. Progress will create more farmland, make room for the railroad and perhaps even get rid of the dreaded swamp cough. And that’s not the only change Mr. Clayborne is bringing; his 22-year-old son, Eldric, with “golden lion’s eyes and a great mane of tawny hair,” has also arrived from London, and he is determined to uncover Briony’s secrets.
Billingsley, an inveterate reader as a child, spent one childhood summer in England, and the memories of the folk tales she read during that time have always stayed with her. Some of the creatures that haunt Briony’s world, such as the Boggy Mun, are based on the traditional folklore of the Fenlands.
“I read a lot of fantasy as a child,” says Billingsley, whose two previous books for young readers are the acclaimed fantasies Well-Wished and The Folk Keeper. “I think one is often moved to write the kind of books one most loved,” she says.
Billingsley tries to keep a regular daily writing schedule in her Chicago home, where she lives with her husband and two children. She turned to writing after an unfulfilling career as a lawyer and has now become a popular lecturer and teacher as well. She is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she teaches in the MFA program, Writing for Children and Adults, and has been called “one of the great prose stylists of the field.”
In Chime, Billingsley has created a character with one foot in the ancient world of magic and another in the early 20th century. But Briony’s struggles to uncover family secrets and find her true identity make her a heroine sure to appeal to 21st-century readers.
“We as writers are digging below the surface of things, and family secrets are especially fascinating,” Billingsley explains. “At the same time, I think Briony in an exaggerated way has the same feelings as many high school girls—she is unsure about herself, and she is searching for her identity. I think these aspects, and her voice, will draw in readers.”
As it happens, finding Briony’s voice was the most exciting aspect of writing Chime, which took Billingsley 12 years. It’s not often that writers have the perseverance to stick with a story for more than a decade, but Billingsley’s patience was rewarded when her character finally began to take shape.
“At one point I was worried that I might never write a novel again,” says Billingsley. “But then Briony’s voice came alive. I had found my character!”
Billingsley’s choice of words is apt; the heroine of this multilayered fantasy is a character who will remain alive in readers’ imaginations for a long time.